Topics of the Week

Worth following! Atlantic Council’s DisinfoPortal launches “The Drop,” a new newsletter aiming at using global expertise to advance understanding of the threat of disinformation and to move the debate about the topic forward, towards needed solutions. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.

Russian Ambassador to the United Kingdom leaves his position after being suspected of acting as a Soviet intelligence officer in the United States during the Cold War.

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin reignited their relationship over a phone call and briefly discussed the Mueller report.

Study of Russian and Armenian mass media shows how Russian TV talk shows push the narratives blaming Ukraine for spreading Nazi ideology, provoking Russia and turning to the West.

Good Old Soviet Joke

In 1978, a few months after the Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia, a Party lecturer was asked, “Why are our troops staying that long in Czechoslovakia?”

“They are searching for the man who invited them.”

Policy & Research News

Russian ambassador to London ordered home

Yet another Russian diplomat, Russian Ambassador to the United Kingdom, has been expelled over the Skripal poisoning, this time after it was revealed that he had been a Soviet intelligence officer in the US during the Cold War and had been caught making mocking remarks about the Salisbury attacks.

This both shows a heightened public awareness and a higher level of attention from the sides of the government for reacting swiftly.

Mr Yakovenko, the man expelled, had been at his post for an unconventional 8 years already. Russian authorities maintain he was not a spy.

A speech at the UN urges to protect journalists on World Press Freedom Day

This week, a widely publicised speech came from the Director of the European Union Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA),  Professor Michael O’Flaherty, who spoke during a UN panel debate in Geneva on Media for democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation to mark World Press Freedom Day on 3 May 2019.

O’Flaherty started out by stressing that, while the role of journalists in democratic societies is clear, we need to understand how it has changed, particularly in the context of the domination of the digital media space over traditional media outlets, and the subsequently increasing risk of disinformation. Emphasizing the importance of journalists in “the maintenance and the strengthening of the democratic space”, O’Flaherty asks his audience to acknowledge and understand the variety of physical, legal, economic and other threats that journalists are exposed to. He then asks to increase protections for journalists to make sure they are allowed and able to continue to fulfil their indispensable role in democratic societies.

His speech came on the back of the recently published Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index 2019. The index worryingly states that the number of countries where journalists can operate safely and with few constraints continues to decline as the number of authoritarian governments seeking to secure a tighter grip on power rises. This has triggered an intense “climate of fear” as only 24% of countries worldwide are assessed to have good or satisfactory press freedom. While there are ongoing debates about the inadequacy of journalistic methods in the fight against disinformation, it is also clear that journalism acts as a crucial building block to thwart malicious attempts to subvert the public discourse and is therefore in dire need of increased support and protection in our societies.

Information offers new Soviet-style hybrid warfare

Information is largely important in strategic terms because of its perspectival power, an excerpt from a new book by D.P. Bagge’ published in the Diplomatic Courier argues. And especially so in the Soviet Union, a state threatened by the advent of single information space in the latter half of the 20th century. Modern day Russia, still inheriting from this old methodology, continues to see information warfare as an alternative asset to the pure militaristic force.

This dynamic blending of operation styles is at the core of the cyberspace battle. There is a very low cost of entry, non-existent or vague international legislation, and a fast reaction speed. That coupled with the privatization and monetization of information paints a scary image.

Cyber-attacks also have this enflaming quality, giving a certain perspective on how something is portrayed. In this way, Russia was able to use distraction techniques during the beginning of the Ukrainian conflict, to sway Europe’s eyes away from Kiev and Donbass and towards Islamic terrorism.

At this level, targets are hit quickly and currently without defences. Disrupting this information can be catastrophic domestically and abroad.

Have Russian sanctions worked?

The question of the effectiveness of Russian sanctions has been contentious for some time. This week, the Council on Foreign Relations tried to weigh up the evidence. While the Russian economy did experience its longest recession in close to 20 years in 2014 – 2015, it has since recovered. While some say that the benefits have gone to the wealthy and that most people remain unaffected by the improvements, this opinion is contradicted by the unemployment rate dropping to a historic low. However, this cannot necessarily be attributed to sanctions, but rather to other factors such as changing oil prices. The moderate effect is a deliberate feature of the sanctions, which target a select list of high-level Russians in order to avoid inflicting mass punishment on a national scale.

The sanctions are often seen as disappointing, as they have failed to dissuade Russia from continued aggression in Ukraine, as well as from Secret Service activity in European elections and Salisbury and may have even boosted support for Putin. On the other hand, many believe the sanctions have been effective in preventing further escalation in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is rightfully considering further action, as Russia remains a threatening presence for an increasing number of countries in Europe and in the world.

US Developments

Trump and Putin reignite their relationship

Trump said that during a phone call with Russian president Vladimir Putin, he briefly discussed the findings of the Mueller report, but did not warn the Kremlin to not meddle in upcoming U.S. elections. Trump described the conversation as a “very good call” in a tweet. He continued that there is tremendous potential for a good/great relationship with Russia, despite what you read and see in the “Fake News Media”.

In an interview, Trump described what he discussed: Venezuela, North Korea, and potential trade with Putin, but not the election collision. He said the US is pursuing a good relationship with Russia, because it is a good thing—not a bad thing—, and continued that Americans want good relations with every country. Despite not discussing the collision on this particular phone call, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said that “this administration, unlike the previous one, takes election meddling seriously”.

While the U.S. intelligence agencies have been highly active in combatting Russian incursions, the presidential administration has been much less proactive since the situation is difficult to fix. Carrie Cordero, a senior fellow and general counsel at the Center for a New American Security, described the situation as lacking an easy solution because of the different levels of power in the U.S. Individual U.S. states are responsible for securing their own election systems, and this decentralization of power makes it difficult to know to what extent these efforts have been carried out. Cordero continued that there is a disconnect between implementation and what the public is being told by the highest levels of government, as the latter make broad statements and do not provide detailed information as to what is being done. This makes the public unsure of what is being carried out beyond Trump signing Executive Order 13848 which applied sanctions in response to Russian interference efforts.

Russia is forced to cut oil production due to contaminated oil

Russia is being forced to cut its oil production after buyers in Europe discovered that $2.7 billion worth of oil they purchased from a Russian producer was contaminated. The Russian producer announced that it will be cutting production by 1 million barrels per day for five days. This is about 10% of its oil production. Last December Russian oil minister Alexander Novak agreed to cut Russian oil output by 2% (up to 230,000 barrels per day) over the first 6 months of 2019, however, Russia did not comply with the cut in any capacity. Russia was even talking about filling gaps left by sanctions on Iran’s oil industry, but now Russia will actually have to cut production.

On April 19th, Transneft, the Russian pipeline company that transported the contaminated oil, alerted an array of customers in Europe that the oil on the way to them was “heavily contaminated” with organic chloride—a compound used to increase oil production and accelerate the flow of oil. The compound is typically removed from crude oil before transportation because it is known to damage refineries. Transneft has yet to explain why the organic chloride was not removed. The company was forced to shut most of its operations on the contaminated line and is requesting to have production cut while it figures out what happened.

The company has blamed “fraudsters” for the contamination, but Putin put the blame solely on Transneft. He said that the company did not have adequate means to remove the organic chloride before sending it to customers. European customers have complained that there was a lack of communication on Transneft’s end. Transneft is a Russian state-owned firm with a monopoly on pipeline transportation in Russia, so Russian crude oil will likely suffer from a loss of confidence as the issue drags on.

Kremlin Watch Reading Suggestion

Findings of Mass Media Monitoring in Armenia

The findings from a project by the Analytical Centre on Globalization and Regional Cooperation (ACGRC) assess Russian and Armenian mass media sources with respect to potential targeted information. Monitoring Ararat TV (“5th Channel”), Rossia 1 channel, and Russian First Channel was intended to investigate the dissemination of propagandistic information through media outlets available in Armenia and focused on five main topics: media coverage of NGO activity, materials about the West, European values, Ukrainian and Syrian crisis, and hate speech/propaganda in general. Additionally, notable messages put forward by media outlets are provided as examples.

A selection of Russian TV talk shows is examined, including “Time will show”, a programme in which the hosts’ rhetoric is reinforced by a selection of anti-Western experts, with a particular focus on Ukraine (a topic that was discussed in 19 out of 22 monitored broadcasts, compared to only 4 broadcasts mentioning Russia’s internal problems). The main narrative was to blame Ukraine for spreading Nazi ideology, provoking Russia, and turning to the West, although a smaller number of broadcasts was also dedicated to topics like NATO, relations with the US, and European policy. The topic of Ukraine was discussed even more frequently in the daily show “60 minutes” (38 out of 42 broadcasts) and while guests of the show include Ukrainian experts with alternative viewpoints, the dominating rhetoric was largely similar and promoted a general atmosphere of hatred. “Evening with Vladimir Solovyov” also exhibited a sharp focus on Ukraine, and even though it was presented as an unbiased programme which provided a platform for liberals and dissenters, the careful selection of speakers and the setting of agenda indicated the contrary.

On the other hand, the Armenian talk show “Interview with Agnesa Khamoyan” was weaker in terms of rhetoric and although some viewpoints presented on foreign issues echoed those expressed on Russian media, the programme tended to focus on domestic topics. In addition to a section on hate speech, the findings analyse Armenian print media, concluding that throughout the period of monitoring, their content was also mainly confined to domestic issues. Overall, Russian television available in Armenia has increased the number of broadcasts on Ukraine, while Armenian outlets largely seemed free from immediate Russian influence.

Kremlin Watch is a strategic program of the European Values Think-Tank, which aims to expose and confront instruments of Russian influence and disinformation operations focused against liberal-democratic system.